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Friday, March 22, 2019

Thunder Not Storming Into the Playoffs

The Oklahoma City Thunder went 37-20 before All-Star Weekend, including a 10-2 mark in the final 12 games before the midseason (or two thirds season, to be precise) break. They boasted a strong offense (115.4 ppg) and an elite defense (110.2 ppg allowed) resulting in a +5.2 ppg point differential that suggested that they were legit contenders to at least reach the Western Conference Finals. Paul George had emerged as a top five MVP candidate, while Russell Westbrook was on pace to "quietly" average a triple double for the third straight season.

The Thunder faced a tough schedule down the stretch, so it was reasonable to expect that they might slip just a bit in the standings--but their 5-10 record since All-Star Weekend is a puzzling collapse of epic proportions. While the Thunder face little risk of missing the playoffs entirely, they have plummeted to the eighth seed, which means nearly certain first round elimination at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.

Usually, when a team falls apart it is possible to pinpoint the root cause or causes of the team's demise but the Thunder's implosion does not lend itself to a simple explanation. Their scoring has declined by nearly 5 ppg and their points allowed has increased by over 4 ppg. Their spg average has dropped from 10.2 to 7.1 and, not surprisingly, they are also forcing 2.5 less turnovers per game. Combine that with a decline in both rebounding and field goal percentage and the result is that the Thunder are losing the "possession" game in terms of both totals and efficiency.

While it is not clear what the problem is, one can expect one person to receive a large portion of the blame after what seems to be an almost inevitable first round loss: Westbrook.

In the abstract, it may make some sense to "blame" a team's best player when that team does not do well, but it is worth remembering that when the Thunder were playing well the media narrative was that George, not Westbrook, was Oklahoma City's best player.

Westbrook has averaged 28.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg and 7.6 apg since All-Star Weekend, compared to 21.7 ppg, 11.2 rpg and 11.2 apg prior to All-Star Weekend. He is still on pace to average a triple double for the third straight season. Westbrook's field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage have increased significantly since All-Star Weekend, while his free throw percentage has only declined slightly (Westbrook's poor free throw shooting throughout the season is puzzling considering that he is a better than .800 free throw shooter during his career). Critics may argue that Westbrook is shooting too much and not passing enough but that argument does not carry much objective weight considering that Westbrook's shooting percentages have risen as his usage has surged. Do his declining assist numbers "prove" that he is unwilling or unable to pass, or do they suggest that his supporting cast has been less than supportive? My main criticism of Westbrook over the past 15 games is that he foolishly collected his 16th technical foul of the season, which resulted in an automatic suspension, likely costing Oklahoma City a win against Miami.

If George is going to get the credit for the time frame when the Thunder were a third seed pressing to possibly be the second seed, then he cannot be held blameless for the Thunder's free fall. George averaged 28.7 ppg on .453/.406/.837 FG%/3FG%/FT% shooting splits prior to All-Star Weekend but in the past 15 games he has scored 25.3 ppg on .381/.314/.827 shooting splits. He has missed three games due to injury during that stretch (the Thunder went 1-2 while he sat out) and he is reportedly battling injuries to both shoulders.

Steven Adams, the team's fourth leading scorer and third best player, has also seen his scoring average and field goal percentage decline in the past 15 games, and the same is true of the Thunder's third leading scorer, Dennis Schroder, who for most of the season has been a great spark plug off of the bench.

Of course, it is not surprising that several individual players have declining numbers on a team that has dramatically transformed from an elite squad to a team that, statistically, resembles a lottery team; those individual numbers define but do not explain why the Thunder have fallen apart despite not suffering an obvious problem in terms of serious injuries/bad chemistry/strategic changes.

My eye test suggests that Westbrook looks bouncier and physically more capable than he did earlier in the season, when it seemed as if his knee surgery had affected his explosiveness and/or confidence--but while Westbrook is regaining his old swagger, the rest of the team has lost its way. What makes this even more odd is that for the past several years the Thunder's success has been directly connected to Westbrook's explosiveness and dominance: the better he played, the better the Thunder did.

It is only a matter of time before some "genius" trots out the tired "Westbrook's ball dominance is killing the Thunder" narrative but the reality is that the Thunder's problems do not seem to be connected in any meaningful way with Westbrook; he is doing his part but, unlike in seasons past, that has not been enough to lift the team. It will be interesting to see if Westbrook elects to shoulder an even larger load as the season winds down; that could potentially be a recipe to lift the Thunder out of eighth place but a one man show is not going to advance very far in the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 AM

14 comments

14 Comments:

At Friday, March 22, 2019 12:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

The Thunder's recent implosion seems a repeat of what happened to the Pacers during the 2013-2014 season. You'll recall that during the previous post season they went toe-to-toe with the eventual champion Heat - took them to seven games - and had established themselves as championship contenders. I was just reviewing some of the media coverage of 2014 and apparently Paul George's personal problems caused his precipitous decline that spring. I got the impression at the time that he was very talented, but fragile mentally, not up to the responsibility of being a franchise player on a championship contender. That is to say, his character is not commensurate with his talent. I've made similar observations about Lebron James. But George is not quite the world-beating talent that Lebron is.

I've described Lebron as a supremely talented loser. Maybe George is a very talented loser? Not even up to being 1B to Westbrook's 1A? Seems like George lacks the mental stamina for an 82-game season plus, all the way up to the Finals. That he hasn't quite learned how to pace himself. I don't know if George is having personal problems now like he did in 2014, regardless, seems to me like his dramatic decline of late is a repeat of spring 2014.

 
At Friday, March 22, 2019 6:40:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I think it's a combination of things. George's injury probably first among them.

Their defense has declined, particularly from an energy-level standpoint (from what little I have seen). I haven't been watching enough lately to say for sure but I would not be shocked if RWB is partly to blame for that, given his history of engaging defensively early in the season before losing interest, and teams' general proclivity to "follow the leader," as it were, when it comes to hustle. To his credit, if that is the case he made it about twice as long as he usually does this year.

They've also slowed the pace of their offense. Again, not watching consistently enough to say why, but RWB (and OKC as a whole) is at his best in the open court; against set half-court offenses he struggles to create good shots for himself and has to rely on his passing, which is excellent, but doesn't do anyone any good if his teammates aren't making their shots (and right now, they're not).

I would rank those factors in the order I mentioned them, and I would posit that #s 2 and 3 are both symptomatic of a team just running out of gas, physically. The good news for OKC is that those two factors may self-correct somewhat given the break before the playoffs. The bad news is that if they're playing against a remotely healthy GSW team it won't matter.

 
At Sunday, March 24, 2019 3:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Your Pacers analogy is on point, and I agree with you (1) that George's basketball character does not seem to be commensurate with his talent and (2) George's talent level is lower than LeBron James' talent level (which means that James is better able to get away with subpar basketball character than George is).

George never was and likely never will be OKC's best player (despite the media hype this season) but OKC needs George to be a solid number 2 (or, even better but perhaps not realistic, 1b to Westbrook's 1a) in order to do any damage in the playoffs.

 
At Sunday, March 24, 2019 3:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

From what I have seen, Westbrook has not "lost interest" defensively. His high energy level has been one of the few consistently positive features for OKC during this rough patch.

I am not sure that OKC will "self-correct" in time to advance in the playoffs, and I of course agree that a matchup with a healthy GSW is death for OKC (and probably everyone else, as well).

 
At Sunday, March 24, 2019 7:35:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

I've watched the last couple of OKC games.

George has a smoother shooting stroke and more size than Westbrook does but he doesn't really reliably create a shot for himself. He thrives on driving through open lanes and catching the pass and burying an open jumpshot but I've noticed, maybe partly because of his lankiness, he's often clumsy with the ball and turns it over a lot in traffic. He also has a major tendency to pout when a call doesn't go his way.

Westbrook has rounded out into his usual MVP form since the All Star break and he nearly singlehandedly brought a struggling/lifeless OKC team to victory over the Toronto Raptors on March 20th (before George fouled out). But I feel like his injuries have begun to add up and I don't think he has really developed enough of a truly reliable go-to move like a Jordan or Kobe fadeaway jumper yet.

The rest of the cast is talented and defensively strong but there aren't enough true shooters who can just knock down shots when they get the ball like a John Paxson.

 
At Sunday, March 24, 2019 10:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

I agree with your observations about George. Although he puts up big scoring totals, he indeed "doesn't reliably create a shot for himself." His height helps him get his shot off even against tight coverage but he does not have a lot of moves, let alone a go-to move that he consistently can use. He does pout a lot, although I think that he and Westbrook have both received more than their share of bad calls--meaning that refs can be expected to miss X amount of calls, just like players can be expected to miss X amount of shots, but refs seem to miss more than X amount of calls with Westbrook and George. Westbrook and George certainly never get the favorable whistle that Harden receives.

You are also correct that, although Westbrook is able to create shots for himself and others, Westbrook does not have a signature go-to move like Jordan and Bryant did.

The only way that OKC can do much damage in the playoffs is for Westbrook to average at least 25-10-10 with decent shooting percentages while George scores 20-25 with decent shooting percentages while also shutting down the opposing team's best wing player. OKC can survive their collective mediocre outside shooting by winning the possession game via forced turnovers and controlling the boards. If OKC can find a way to get out of GSW's side of the bracket, the above could be a recipe for a WCF appearance--but, right now, OKC looks like first round fodder.

 
At Monday, March 25, 2019 10:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RW is playing well, but his track record as his team's best player has been terrible(only 2 1st round losses in 3 seasons as the #1 guy). Luckily for him, he hasn't been his team's best player this season. That distinction goes to George. One could argue possible argue RW is better overall offensively than George this season, though I wouldn't. But, George is much better defensively.

George has some weaknesses and probably never has been more than a fringe MVP candidate along with RW having the better overall career so far between the 2, but George has led his teams to 2 CF's, and was within 1 win of the Finals(possibly a title that year). RW has been to CF's and the Finals, but never without KD.

I don't see that much backlash against RW this season. And let's not forget the season he won MVP. OKC only won 47 games. I can't remember a player winning MVP with that low of a team win total.

 
At Monday, March 25, 2019 9:48:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I will have to take your word for it on RWB's defensive effort level, although it is worth noting that historically you have given him something of a blank check on that front while I've been pretty consistently critical.

At any rate, OKC can't be looking at this season as anything but a disappointment at this point, and they are running out of excuses. They have All-NBAish guys at two positions, a top 5-10ish center, and a passable supporting cast, and they've been relatively healthy all year. That should not an 8 seed make, eve in the West.

As a Seattlite it's nice to see them fail, but as a fan of good basketball it's a shame they couldn't keep their early-season form going and give us something worth watching in the playoffs.

 
At Monday, March 25, 2019 10:52:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

I got curious and went stat-digging.

Since the All-Star break, OKC's D-RTG has been 8.2 points per 100 possessions with RWB on the bench. Prior to the All-Star break, they were still better without him, but only by 4.8 points per 100.

Context matters here: OKC has a very good defensive bench, and has all year. Plus, bench units play other bench units more than they play starters. The issue here is not that OKC is better defensively with RWB sitting, it's that that gap has almost doubled post-AS. Defense is not a one-man job and doubtless some of that can be attributed to George's injury as well, but... it's still not great.

Looking at it purely statistically, it does not seem like his defensive impact has been the same post AS break. The team's defense as a whole has of course declined but that particular metric is grading him relative to his teammates, not relative to the rest of the league.

Again, you have watched more of the recent games than I have, so perhaps this is just statistical noise, but given his career-long history of seasonally decaying defensive give-a-crap, the numbers seem to suggest he's doing what he's always done.

 
At Tuesday, March 26, 2019 7:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Assuming that you are only classifying Westbrook as "the #1 guy" since Durant's departure, the Thunder have made two playoff appearances during that time, not three, with the third appearance to begin next month barring a total collapse.

In OKC's first post-Durant season, Westbrook won the regular season MVP while becoming the only player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season. Here is how I summarized Westbrook's regular season performance:

"1) Westbrook became the only player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season and along the way Westbrook broke Robertson's single season record by posting 42 triple doubles. Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder went 33-9 when he posted a triple double and 14-26 when he did not--in other words, when Westbrook played at a superhuman level he lifted the Thunder to the level of the San Antonio Spurs but when he was 'merely' great the Thunder performed comparably to the Philadelphia 76ers. The only other guards who have had that kind of singular impact on the performance of an otherwise bad team are Pistol Pete Maravich with the Jazz in the late 1970s and Kobe Bryant with the mid-2000s Lakers.

2) Westbrook became the first player 6-3 or under to average at least 10 rpg.

3) Westbrook is the first player to average at least 30 ppg and at least 10 rpg in the same season since Karl Malone in 1989-90; Malone is a Hall of Fame power forward, yet the 6-3 point guard Westbrook accomplished something that Hall of Fame big men including Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing never did once in their entire careers.

4) Westbrook became the first player to average at least 30 ppg and at least 10 apg in the same season since Nate Archibald in 1972-73.

5) Westbrook averaged 31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 10.4 apg, ranking in the top 10 in the league in each category: first in scoring (his second scoring title), third in assists and 10th in rebounding.

Do you like 'advanced basketball statistics'? I don't but all of the 'stat gurus' who used such numbers to place Chris Paul or Steve Nash ahead of Kobe Bryant about a decade ago should note that Westbrook ranked first in plus/minus, first in offensive plus/minus, second in defensive plus/minus and first in value over replacement player. Westbrook is derided in some quarters as a bad defensive player but in one of the metrics that the 'stat gurus' love--defensive rating--Westbrook ranked 13th, ahead of all of the other MVP candidates except Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, neither of whom had the impact on the boards or on offense that Westbrook had."

Westbrook carried OKC to the sixth seed with very little help (out of shape Oladipo was the team's second best player). I correctly predicted that OKC would lose to third seeded Houston in the first round. There is no shame in losing that series.

The next season, Westbrook carried the Thunder to the fourth seed and the Thunder lost to a Utah team that was peaking at the right time. The 4-5 matchup is obviously close on paper, but the Jazz by playoff time were a much better team than their record suggested. Again, that loss was not Westbrook's fault.

Regarding this season, the Thunder were a top three West team most of the year but they are collapsing now. The standings are still in flux, though, and we don't know where OKC will end up or how the Thunder will do in the first round.

Therefore, on the basis of the evidence above I disagree with your negative take on Westbrook's brief tenure as OKC's #1 player. It is also worth noting that Westbrook was a key, high level performer for OKC teams that made four WCF appearances, a distinction that few active players can claim.

 
At Tuesday, March 26, 2019 7:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I disagree that I give Westbrook a "blank check" regarding his defense; previous comment threads have shown that you and I evaluate individual defense differently, or at least we do so regarding certain players (most notably, late career Kobe Bryant, and most, if not entire, career Russell Westbrook).

I have not seen every single OKC game but from what I have seen Westbrook is not primarily at fault for the defensive slippage. To cite just one example, take the game-winning putback in the Indiana loss. Yes, it was Westbrook's man (Wesley Matthews) who scored that basket--but if you watch the entire play, the team defense broke down when George slipped while trying to get around a screen up top. Westbrook slid over to cut off the next pass, and thus Matthews slipped in behind him for the rebound. If Westbrook had not tried to help, Indiana would have had a wide open shot. Instead, the Pacers missed, but then got the rebound. That play looked bad for Westbrook if you just glanced at the end result, and it affected his defensive rating (because he was on the court when the points were scored) but I would say it was not his fault. That, of course, does not explain the larger statistical trend that you mentioned but my point is to use one small sample size example to indicate that raw numbers do not always accurately convey what happened. In general, I don't trust "advanced" defensive statistics on the individual level because there are too many variables that such statistics do not adequately measure.

I don't rank Westbrook as an elite defender by any means, but I would say that he is a good defender who can, at times, be a very good defender. I would also argue that his exceptional defensive rebounding is an important contribution to team defense.

 
At Wednesday, March 27, 2019 12:11:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

"Blank check" was probably too strong a phrasing, I apologize.

I didn't see the game so I can't comment on the play, and even if I had, I don't think one play ultimately tells us too much about a player's defensive effort level over the course of a game. My main knocks, historically, on RWB's defensive effort (distinct from my knocks on his skillset, which are harder to fix) are things like not getting back in transition, not recovering after an initial rotation, not making a second rotation, etc. Most of these are off-ball errors.

His skillset errors, on the other hand, tend to be on-ball and, ironically, symptomatic of over-engagement. Biting on fakes, slamming head-first into screens, committing dumb fouls, etc. He seems to lock-in when he had a chance to do a thing, but effort wanes when it's the boring, unflashy stuff.

He has been better on both fronts this season, at least from what I've seen. The precipitous drop in OKC'd defensive efficiency-- and the fact that said drop has disproportionately come with him on the floor- leads me to question if some of these issues have re-emerged, as it seems a likely explanation of an otherwise puzzling decline. He has a history of those effort issue getting more pronounced as the season progresses, and in fact I would no the surprised if previous OKC teams had experienced similar or even more dramatic defensive declines after initial hot starts.

 
At Wednesday, March 27, 2019 5:39:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

David,

Good day. Always meant to ask you if you are related to the good writer thomas friedman...

I appreciate how you both analyze and write...

 
At Wednesday, March 27, 2019 11:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jackson888:

Thank you for your kind words.

To the best of my knowledge, I am not related to Thomas Friedman.

 

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